In her second novel, The Memory of Love, Aminatta Forna looks at the aftermath of a civil war in an African country very much like Sierra Leone. Former professor Elias Cole is at the end of his life and requests sessions with visiting Scottish psychiatrist Adrian Lockhart, eager for the young doctor to listen to his life story. Adrian is drawn to Elias, but soon grows suspicious of the older man’s manipulations, and a burgeoning love affair with a local woman only increases his distrust. Adrian also becomes friendly with colleague Kai Mansaray, an African orthopedic surgeon, whose soulful love of his troubled country, as well as lingering feelings for his ex-girlfriend Nenebah, keeps him from immigrating, despite pressures from friends and family. Primarily a story of relationships, The Memory of Love focuses as much on the connections between past and present, perpetrator and victim, patriotism and dishonor, as it does on those between friends and lovers.
Forna, who has also written a memoir of her early life in Africa, splits her time between London and Sierra Leone.
You were raised in Sierra Leone and your father was a physician, as well as the Minister of Finance. He was arrested, detained and ultimately executed by the government in the mid 1970s, when you were 10. You have written extensively about this in your memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, but here, you explore it through the memories of Elias Cole. What was it like to recreate that time period in fiction as opposed to memoir?
I had already spoken to lots of people about that time, so I didn’t have to do that much more research. And of course, I have my own childhood memories. Saffia and Julius’ world was very much drawn from the world my parents inhabited in 1960’s West Africa. Their music was High Life, afrobeat, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba. I remember the men all wore starched white cuffs, dark suits and narrow ties. The women wore chic dresses made using African prints. They believed in themselves and in the future.
Wole Soyinka, who was one of them, calls them the ‘Renaissance Generation’ and quite recently I interviewed Ngugi wa Thiongo, the great Kenyan author, about those times for a radio program. We both became rather emotional when he asked about my father and I had to tell him that my father hadn’t survived. Ngugi—who also spent time as a political prisoner—said that it never occurred to him that if he had been killed he would be leaving his children the task of seeking justice for him. I also interviewed sons and daughters of Renaissancers. I found that, even though for them the African Renaissance never happened, their inspiration lived on in the next generation. They showed us how the world should be. Immortalizing their world in print has been a joy. To be honest whether it is in fiction or nonfiction doesn’t matter. In Sierra Leone, people who were among those who fought for a better country come up and hug me.
Much of The Memory of Love takes place in operating rooms and psychiatric hospitals. What kind of research did you do?
I spent time in Freetown hospitals, in one in particular: the Emergency Hospital, which specialized in orthopedics. I followed two surgeons, also an intensive care nurse and spent time in Accident and Emergency. Every operation in the book is one I witnessed. The very first operation I saw was a leg amputation. One of the young surgeons said I had the strongest stomach he had ever come across and this made me very proud. My father, of course, was a doctor and so I grew up around medical matters. I also remember my mother saying that my father was the only member of his medical class who did not faint or have to leave the room the first time they watched an operation. It must be a case of like father like daughter.
Freetown only has one mental hospital, and Dr. Edward Nahim, who runs it, let me have free run of the place. I talked to everyone, including the patients. Locals call the place ‘Crazy Yard.’ Recently they have received some funding and the facility has been improved enormously.
The aspect that fascinated me the most in this novel was the cultural differences in the way mental heath was understood and treated. Why were you interested in exploring that?
I have grown up negotiating two cultures all my life and have always known there is more than one way of seeing. In the West, psychology is treated as a science and accorded great reverence. But it is based on Western values, systems and cultural ways of being. For example, clinical psychologists or psychotherapists use silence as a way of prompting patients to talk. I wondered how this might or might not work in a country where people are happy and unembarrassed to sit in silence for hours. Thus Adrian finds his skills and knowledge are of limited use. He has to re-orient his whole way of seeing the world, which he does with Mamakay’s help. In the end he comes to understand the country and its people, but this happens only once he stops expecting the country to explain itself to him.
You use the friendship and tension between Kai and Adrian to explore different attitudes about foreign aid. How do you see aid in Sierra Leone? Has it been successful?
In short, no. Witnessing the postwar scramble in Sierra Leone totally changed my mind about aid and its effectiveness. If the West wants to do anything to help developing countries, we should create a level playing field in trade terms so those countries can build their economies. However, it is cheaper for the West to throw a bit of aid money around than play fair. Plus, aid is a big money, self-generating industry employing tens of thousands of people—mostly Westerners. The whole premise is fundamentally dishonest. After the NGOs and aid workers had begun to quit Sierra Leone for Liberia, I wrote a piece for a British newspaper and went around asking everyone I met to show me a project that had really worked. I talked to guys living in slums, working girls, bank clerks, human rights workers, journalists and even a minister. Nobody could think of a single one.
Elias Cole is such a complex character, and it isn’t until you get fairly well into the novel that you begin to see how manipulative he is and the way he justifies what he did. What was the inspiration for him and do you see him as a villain?
A friend of mine from Argentina told me about growing up during the Dirty War in the 1970s when thousands of people were ‘disappeared.’ As an adult she began to have doubts about her father. He had survived while other of his colleagues had been killed—indeed, his career had flourished. There came a time when she had to ask herself whether he had been complicit. At one point I thought of setting the book in Argentina. Then I went back to Sierra Leone after the war and encountered dozens of people just like Elias Cole who were denying their part in the oppression and venality that gave birth to the war.
The character of Adrian appears in your earlier book Ancestor Stones. What about him made you want to explore his character further?
I had the character of Elias and I wanted someone to listen to his story. The person had to be an equal, someone as clever as Elias but—like the reader—someone who had played no part in events and knew little about what had happened. Someone who would have to decide whether Elias’ account was a truthful one. One day I thought of Adrian and plucked him out of Ancestor Stones.
I thought it was interesting that The Memory of Love is set in a Sierra Leone-like place, although the country is only named once and fleetingly at that. In a novel of great emotional specificity, why were you unspecific about the place?
I didn’t name it at all in Ancestor Stones, and I would have done the same again had my publishers not leant on me to do so. I didn’t want readers to come to the book with their ideas of what they thought they knew about Sierra Leone, based on sometimes inaccurate media reports. To me this book could be set anywhere where there has been oppression and war, and indeed German readers have likened the story to pre-war Germany and Spanish readers see echoes of their own civil war. One employs specificity in order to create universality.
Can you talk about the title? Does it refer to a love affair or love of country or a bit of both?
Both. The title refers specifically to Kai’s memories of loving Nenebah, but it also intended as an indirect reference back to a time of hope. Kai compares the love to the feeling of pain experienced by people who have lost limbs. The fact the limb is no longer there doesn’t mean the pain isn’t real. Kai still loves Nenebah.
You split your time between London and Sierra Leone. What do you do in each location?
My clothes and desk are in London. That’s where I am based and pay my taxes. In Sierra Leone, which I visit around twice a year, I spend time in my family village Rogbonko where, along with my husband, I run a series of projects. We have helped the village build a school, dug wells for clean water and provided all our schoolchildren with mosquito nets, as malaria is the number one killer of kids in Africa. Currently we are building a small maternal health facility—Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal death rates in the world, if not the highest. Then there is Kholifa Estates, a 200-acre cashew plantation inspired by Ancestor Stones. The aim is to provide an economic base for the village by encouraging other farmers to do the same on a smaller scale. So far seven have joined us. You can read about The Rogbonko Project on my website.
There is so much exciting African literature that is now available in the United States, especially from Kenya and Nigeria. What African authors do you enjoy? Since you are in Sierra Leone part of each year, are there any up-and-coming writers on your radar whose work we should be looking for?
Helon Habila, who wrote Waiting for an Angel and has just published Oil on Water about the Niger Delta, is a wonderful writer. Others to watch are Brian Chikwava from Zimbabwe and author of Harare North; Samson Kambalu who wrote the hilarious and moving The Jive Talker; and Black Sister Street author Chika Unigwe.
In Sierra Leone there is a small but energetic and growing literary community. I used to teach workshops when I was visiting in the early days after the war. After years of cultural stagnation there is a long way to go. The country only has one bookshop and no publishing industry to speak of. But this is the age of the Internet and there is a lot of energy and some wonderful writing being produced, so I don’t think it will be too long before one of them finds an international publisher.
What has the response to The Memory of Love been in Sierra Leone and in England?
The reviews in Britain were very good and that is heartening. I have just heard that The Memory of Love has been nominated for the £50,000 Warwick Prize.
In Sierra Leone distribution is a problem and the book has only been out a few months, but I know people traveling to the U.K. are going back laden with copies for all their friends. I also make my books available in the university libraries. The Devil that Danced on the Water provoked a huge response. I hope this book continues the search for answers.